Fresh off of the success of its Silver Meteor streamliner, which hit the rails early in 1939, the Seaboard Air Line lined up another popular market to serve between Richmond, Virginia and Birmingham, Alabama with a train known as the Silver Comet. It took the Seaboard longer than it had hoped to start the train due to resistance from the Pennsylvania Railroad, which provided the railroad with a through connection to New York City. In many ways the Comet never reached the success of the Meteor partly because it was six years behind the Southern Railway's popular Southerner. Despite this the train was successful for a number of years and Seaboard offered excellent service. As patronage declined SAL finally admitted defeat to the Southern and cancelled the Comet prior to 1970. Today, even the route the train traversed is no more having been abandoned by successor CSX Transportation in the late 1980s.
The history of the Silver Comet dates back to 1939, soon after the Seaboard Air Line launched its popular Silver Meteor streamliner that served New York and Miami. The railroad hoped to again work with the Pennsy in having the train serve New York. However, the PRR was hesitant to do so on the basis that the Southern Railway, another run-through partner who already connected its trains like the Birmingham Special (which served the same market) and Pelican to New York, was disinterested at the time of operating streamliners. As such, by providing the SAL with interchange service the Pennsy worried about alienating its long-time partner. For the Seaboard's sake this apprehension went away for the PRR after the Southern finally adopted streamliners in 1941.
Interestingly, however, the SAL did not immediately launch the Silver Comet as it focused on other endeavors and other trains. Additionally, the onset of World War II precluded the railroad from purchasing any new equipment and focusing on new streamliners. Soon after the war, however, the SAL finally launched the train on May 18, 1947 which was meant to compete directly with the Southern's Southerner, a train that would turn out to be only behind the Crescent in terms of importance and popularity on that railroad. The Comet came about thanks in large part by a larger new order of equipment the SAL received from the Budd Company featuring the builder's classic fluted stainless steel design
Despite the fact that the Comet required the partnership of the Pennsy to reach New York essentially operated all of the way through to the Big Apple. In other words, once the Seaboard handed the train off to the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac (which carried it to Washington, D.C. and a connection with the PRR) at Richmond, Virginia the entire consist continued northward. The typical consist of the Silver Comet included a baggage, reclining-seat coaches, a lounge, up to five sleepers, a diner, and an observation coach. At times the train could be quite lengthy, especially south of Richmond where the Seaboard often handled through cars of the RF&P and Pennsy.
From New York to Birmingham the entire length of the journey was just over 1,106 miles. Departing Pennsylvania Station at 12:45 P.M. the train arrived at Washington that evening and the Seaboard picked up the Comet from the RF&P a few hours later at Richmond around 7:58 P.M. From there it traveled southwest towards Birmingham arriving about another 15 hours later at 10:45 A.M. the following. Total time aboard train was usually around 22 hours or just under one full day. The Comet also offered passengers connecting service between New York and Boston as well as Hamlet, North Carolina and Norfolk, Virginia.
Unfortunately, the Silver Comet could not stay competitive against the Southerner. As Mike Schafer and Joe Welsh state in their book, Streamliners: History of a Railroad Icon, during the 1960s under Seaboard Coast Line direction the train sometimes offered nothing more than a single coach, diner-lounge, and sleeper. Of course, having been launched so late behind its rival likely contributed to some of its ridership issues; the Southern was simply already well established and continued to offer the Southerner with high class service nearly until the startup of Amtrak in early 1971. The SCL would discontinue the Comet by June, 1969. For timetable and consist information about the Silver Comet please click here.